Lawsuit Says Swift Meant To Hire Illegals

Anabelle Garay, AP, Dec. 19, 2006

Former employees are suing Swift & Co. for $23 million, alleging the meatpacking company conspired to keep wages down by hiring illegal immigrants.

The 18 former employees are U.S. citizens and legal residents who worked at a plant in Cactus, north of Amarillo, one of six facilities raided in a multistate federal sweep that led to the arrests of nearly 1,300 employees and temporarily halted Swift’s operations.

“These plaintiffs are … victims in a longstanding scheme by Swift to depress and artificially lower the wages of its workers by knowingly hiring illegal workers,” said their attorney, Angel Reyes. “By lessening its labor costs and increasing its profits, Swift has severely damaged the potential earnings and livelihood of these hardworking men and women.”

A spokesman for Greeley, Colo.-based Swift didn’t immediately return calls Monday, but President and CEO Sam Rovit has said the company has never knowingly hired illegal workers and does not condone the practice.

The Dallas investment firm that owns Swift, HM Capital Partners LLC, said in a statement the lawsuit is “completely without merit.”

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Although no charges were filed against Swift, Reyes said the plaintiffs believe company officials looked the other way when hiring workers from Central America willing to work for less money. Over time, those workers began replacing legal residents and U.S. citizens, many of them Hispanic, Reyes said.

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They came to tell the stories they say aren’t being told.

In the wake of last Tuesday’s raids at Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in Worthington, Minn., and five other states, a group of about 200 people gathered Monday afternoon outside the St. Paul offices of U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman to condemn the federal action and demand immigration reform.

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The stories were told to Coleman’s staff members; rally organizers were informed that the senator is out of the country. A few of the people visiting the office said the storytelling was necessary because the government is using accusations of identity theft as an excuse to round up undocumented workers.

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The assembly came the same afternoon the U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis announced the indictment of 20 of the 230 people detained in the Worthington raid.

According to prosecutors, a federal grand jury indicted 19 of the detainees on charges of use of an unlawfully obtained document for employment and use of a false document for employment eligibility verification.

Fifteen of those people also face an additional charge of aggravated identity theft.

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A 20th person was charged with re-entering the United States after being previously deported.

Bruce Nestor, a Minneapolis-based immigration attorney, said 21 detainees are scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis at 8:30 a.m. today. He reported that 15 other detainees had bond hearings Monday in immigration court. The timing wasn’t coincidental, he said.

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Despite the criminal charges, activists at the rally called the raids unwarranted and demoralizing. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement action netted 1,282 arrests at six Swift meatpacking plants across the country.

Mike Potter, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1161 at the Swift pork-processing plant in Worthington, said he had no words to describe how the ICE sweep damaged his southwestern Minnesota community of 11,000.

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The crowd held candles against the cold wind on University Avenue as cars passed; some honked in support. A few people held banners. The largest read, “Reunify Families; No More Raids.”

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